Mongolia’s Unforgiving Freeze

Paula Bronstein is a senior staff photographer with Getty Images, based in Bangkok, who has covered Afghanistan extensively. She has been a photojournalist more than 25 years and, most recently, took second place as photographer of the year (freelance/agency) in the Pictures of the Year International contest. In March, she traveled to Mongolia for Getty and spoke about the trip last month, by telephone, with James Estrin. The exchange has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q:Why did you go?
A: I went to Mongolia because they were experiencing one of the worse winters in three decades. Now, what do I mean by one of the worse winters in the one of the coldest places in the planet? I mean that is even colder than normal and they got more snow then they normally do. In early March, the average temperature is minus 17 to minus 20 degrees centigrade. [One degree to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.] A lot of herders make their entire livelihood off of herding, mostly sheep and goats. And a large percentage of the herders have lost at least 40 to 60 percent of their herd. That is all they have. So that is extremely devastating for them. In the capital, Ulan Bator, you’ve got homeless people living in the sewers.

[A drought last summer followed by an unusually cold winter has killed more than eight million animals, about 17 percent of the country's livestock. See "A Bitter Spring for Mongolia's Nomads," a Times video by Andrew Jacobs.]
I really wanted to go to a place where few other journalists were going and where I thought I could tell my own version of the story. It had been 10 years since I had been there. And that’s what I told my editors. I said: “You know, I am not going there to do one story. I am going to do, like, four to five stories.” And that’s what I did.
Q: Tell me about the homeless living in the sewers.
A: The pipes keep the sewers warm, and some of them can be kept relatively clean or livable. There’s one picture of a drunk women I’ve photographed a lot. She’s wearing a red shirt and there’s garbage floating in water, completely surrounding her as she sleeps. I could barely stay down there. But then I was in another sewer where I photographed this family, and they had a bed and things hanging on the wall. It was really made into their little home. Some people are living there for years. It’s just another aspect of how the homeless live.
Q: What’s life like for Mongolians?
A: There’s one picture of a woman passed out on the side of the road. This woman was obviously completely drunk and bleeding from the forehead and from the nose, as well. I asked the translator to stop the car. We got out immediately and I tried to signal to other people because I was trying to help this woman. Well, it seems like these kinds of things happen fairly often, which means it’s just not at all shocking to see someone passed out on the side of the road. No one wanted to help.

I did a pretty comprehensive story about the street kids and how they pick them up off the street and bring them in. There’s a pretty decent shelter for the kids that’s more of a detention center-shelter, that’s completely supported by World Vision. They get fed well, cleaned up and they have these nice dormitories to sleep in. Once they get to the shelter, they realize it’s better than being on the street. They’re just kids.

The street kids issue is a big issue, a very big issue there. They have a lot of shelters because they’ve got a lot of street kids.
Q: You’re lucky that — at least for the moment — you’re employed by a company that actually wants photojournalism.
A: Yes, exactly.


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